BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo credit: Al Bello/Getty Images)
Sports fans can tell it’s a big series when combatants engage in gamesmanship before it starts.
Mets manager Buck Showalter selected Max Scherzer to start Monday’s game against the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves. This came a day after Scherzer, coming off from an injured list, struck out 11 Cincinnati Reds while pitching six innings of two-hit ball in the Mets’ 1-0 loss on Tuesday night at Great American Ball Park. He manipulated the order of the starting rotation to have his best pitcher set the tone of this division matchup.
The Braves decided to play along by acquiring Robinson Cano for cash Sunday afternoon on the eve of the series. Everyone knew the one-time star flopped with the Mets, which led to his release this season.
Showalter and the Braves can deny all they want about this being a coincidence but actions speak louder than words. This isn’t just a series in the regular-season schedule. This isn’t just a game on the schedule. They are not fooling anyone here.
The Mets start their series against the Braves with a tenuous 1 1/2 games lead of first place after being ahead by 10 1/2 games on June 1. There’s a good chance they could vacate their spot by the time series ends on Wednesday afternoon.
Showalter is managing with a sense of urgency by starting Scherzer. Everyone knows it, and that includes the Braves. The Mets manager stresses the importance of winning the first game of the series often. He believes the team that wins the series’ first game has a better chance of winning a series. He knows the Mets have to get this first game just to get much-needed confidence against a team they always had trouble with.
The Braves know they have nothing to prove, but they gave the Mets something to think about by acquiring Cano. They don’t expect much from Cano. Still, they can plant this idea they can get some results out of him. They always seem to find a way to get an ounce of everything from their players, even washed-up guys. The Mets have every right to worry about what Cano can do for them, especially since he will be playing in this series as he will bat ninth tonight.
For the Braves to do this on the eve of the series, they tweaked the Mets by offering a reminder of what they can do to them.
The Mets don’t need this news to know the Braves are a team that can get in their way of what has been a good season. They knew this all the way back to spring training. Despite an enormous lead in June, the Braves were going to be heard from, and they did just that by going on a 14-game winning streak and going 29-8 since June 1 that propelled them to cut the Mets’ first-place lead.
This moment of truth starts now. This is where the Mets need this series more than the Braves. They need to make a statement to their nemesis that they are not the same team that always wilt in Atlanta. It’s time for them to embrace the matchup with the Braves. For them to win the division, the road goes through the Braves.
To the players’ credit, they seem ready to get it on. They have good intentions. None of that is going to matter if they don’t get the series, though.
Already, paranoid Mets fans are bracing for the worst. They are thinking 2007 all over again after every Mets loss. They feel their team is not that good and that they would collapse just like 2007, which they missed the playoffs after being in first place for most of that season. They also know Atlanta is the better team at this point, which is hard for anyone to argue here.
But it’s up to the Mets to change the narrative. That’s why this series is so important. That’s why Monday night’s game matters. By winning tonight and this series, it gives a chance for them and their fans to breathe for a week or two.
Despite math and logic, the Mets can beat the Braves. They got the pitching to match up with Atlanta’s. Their offense is good enough. They have a manager that knows what he is doing in putting his guys in a position to succeed. The Braves don’t put the fear of God like the Houston Astros do despite what Mets fans think.
The Mets have the right makeup to play against the Braves. The players respect them, but they won’t fear them, either. It starts with guys like Pete Alonso, Starling Marte, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo and Scherzer. They won’t have the anxiety to go up against them.
Right now, the Mets have been struggling at the plate, but they have the resourceful, relentless lineup that wears out pitchers. This is a team that is built to beat good pitchers.
When the Mets took a split against the Braves in May at Citi Field, they did everything right for the most part. They pitched well, and they hit well. It’s hard to think it will be different. Maybe the Braves are the type of team that gets the Mets going, which is why now is the right time to face them.
No one said it was going to be easy. It’s never easy for the Mets. Winning was not meant to be easy. It has to be earned.
This series could be the moment of truth for the Mets. We are going to find out what they are really about now that they are under pressure to maintain that slim first-place lead and beat the Braves. It’s an opportunity for them to relish.
As Ric Flair would say, to be the man, you gotta beat the man.
That’s the challenge the Mets face in Atlanta.
This writer can be reached on Twitter at: @LeslieMonteiro6
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